Assault ladders in Geneva and Guebwiller: Rare accounts of two failed attempts to scale city walls with ladders

The use of assault ladders is well-documented in literary sources from the Middle Ages and the early modern era, including siege accounts, illuminated documents,[1] and various models presented in treatises on siege tactics (fig. 1). However, there are very few extant examples of such ladders [https://blog.mahgeneve.ch/cent-cinquante-ans-avant-lescalade/]. With seventeen segments surviving, the modular ladders used in the attempt by Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy (1562, 1580-1630) to seize Geneva during the nights of 11 and 12 December 1602,[2] currently in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de la Ville[3] [https://blog.mahgeneve.ch/les-echelles-precieux-souvenirs-de-lescalade/], constitute a remarkable historic ensemble. The “Night of the Escalade” [https://blog.mahgeneve.ch/les-souvenirs-de-lescalade/] was the most notable episode in the perennial struggle between the fortress on Lake Leman and the powerful House of Savoy: this brazen surprise attack lives on in Geneva’s popular memory.

Fig. 1. Double assault ladder, Kriegstechnik, illustrated manuscript, Upper Rhine, c. 1420-1440, fo 80r, watercolour drawing © Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. hist. 33b (https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/zbz/Ms-Rh-hist0033b).

The success of such assaults was far from assured,[4] and the failure of a mission that was “so well organised and so poorly executed”[5] in 1602 can certainly not be blamed on the ladders that were deployed; they functioned exactly as intended, allowing an elite corps of some 350 men to easily scale the city walls before triggering an alarm and alerting the city’s defenders to mobilise.

Fig. 2. Anonymous, The Escalade of Geneva, 1602 · View with scrolled inscriptions, Geneva, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 20.5 x 72 cm © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, gift of Jean-Pierre Rivière, 1834, inv. 11572, photo: Y. Siza.

By the time the battle ended, the ladders had been ripped down and partially destroyed by cannon shrapnel as the assailants fled in panic (fig. 2). The devices were retrieved and claimed as trophies along with the rest of the material that had been abandoned by the Savoyards.[6] A few days later they were hung “beneath the town hall in commemoration” of the event.[7] Following a brief and fruitless incursion by the Swiss into enemy territory,[8] the ladders entered the Arsenal’s collections. Various accounts bear witness, as early as the seventeenth century, to the presence of these ladders “[which] are in Geneva, worthy memorials of its deliverance”[9]—a deliverance that the inhabitants of this Protestant city devoutly attributed to “the arm of the Almighty” (see fig. 2, scroll). Mounted as trophies in the Armoury Room in the Arsenal, they were transferred in the same configuration to the the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire’s Armoury Room in 1910.

Ladders of “admirable ingenuity”

Apparently manufactured in Turin to avoid arousing suspicion and discretely conveyed to the theatre of battle, the Savoyards’ ladders were constructed based on measurements taken directly on location. There were originally eight of them, each incorporating eight segments. Only three of these were actually used, formed of five interlocked sections with a total height of 6.89 metres, sufficient for scaling the wall, which was about 6.50 metres high. The ingeniousness of these ladders must have made a lasting impression on the contemporaries of the Escalade, who were unanimous in celebrating their “admirable ingenuity.”[10] One of the accounts, written soon after the events by a notable Genevan,[11] provides an exceptionally detailed description: “Very well suited for a clandestine mission,” they included “several pieces of only four rungs,” which were easily transportable, fitting “very readily and securely” together, facilitating the assembly of ladders “that could be shortened and lengthened as desired” depending on the height of the targeted objective. Their stability was assured by “two massive nails” attached to the lower extremity of the side rails of the segment resting on the ground (fig. 3, compare fig. 1 and 7), while the upper extremity of the side rails of the top segment bears a “covered castor on a padded cloth” allowing the ladder to be easily and noiselessly slid up against the wall (fig. 4, idem). “All the other ends of said ladder parts” were strengthened by a “joint reinforced by iron” (fig. 5), which provided a double interlock “because said pieces of ladders were broader at the bottom than at the top.” The upper rung, which extended about 5.5 centimetres on either side of the siderails, served to support the lower extremity of the next component, whose second level in turn accommodated interlocking devices of the lower segment (fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Segment of the Escalade ladders (detail of the upper extremity), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 41, photo: F. Bevilacqua.

Fig. 6. Two segments of the Escalade ladders (detail of the interlock), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 57 and F 46, photo: C. Borel. All the segments bear reference marks in their side rails which are numbered from 1 to 7 from the top of the ladder, although the intermediary segments are completely interchangeable.

1445: The Armagnacs’ attempt to take Guebwiller

Although the Genevans were perennially fascinated by these modular assault ladders, such devices were not a novelty (fig. 7). One hundred fifty years before the Savoyard attack in December 1602, an attempt to scale the walls of the small Alsatian town of Guebwiller provided another valuable piece of material evidence.

Fig. 7. Rope ladder and dismountable ladder, Hausbuch of the castle of Wolfegg, c. 1480, fo 53 v1, watercolour drawing © Wikimedia Commons.

The Armagnac mercenary army, known as “Écorcheurs” (“Flayers”), led by the French Dauphin (the future Louis XI, 1423-1483), achieved a hard-won victory over the Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs (26 August 1444). The Armagnacs then proceeded to ravage the Alsatian territories where they settled into winter quarters. During the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445, the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day, a gang of looters in search of plunder, probably part of the Wattwiller or Einsisheim garrisons,[12] attacked Guebwiller. This small town was under the protection of the prince-abbot of the neighbouring abbey of Murbach. The Armagnacs scaled its curtain wall (fig. 8 a-b), which was slightly higher than the Genevan wall climbed by the Savoyards; Guebwiller’s fortification, of which only small vestiges survive, was about 8 metres tall.[13]

Fig. 8 a-b. Johann Martin Weis II (1738 – after 1807), after a drawing by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738-1826) dated 1759, Gebvilla aspectus ab Oriente (Guebwiller seen from the east), copper engraving illustrating a work by Johann Daniel Schoepflin, Alsatia illustrata Germanica, Gallica, Colmar 1761, page 65. In the mid-eighteenth century, the city still retained its crenelated medieval curtain wall. Detail: the Dominican priory and, to the right, the parish church of Saint-Léger.

The event was not in itself exceptional. The Écorcheurs routinely engaged in such nocturnal stealth attacks. They were renowned as fighters who were skilled in this art, known as escheleurs, and they were widely admired and sought after.[14] This attack was a relatively minor episode during a particularly troubled era. The failed assault on Guebwiller—whose population is estimated at 1,400 inhabitants at the end of the fourteenth century, compared to 13,000 in Geneva at the time of the Escalade—did not have a comparable impact on the small town. Calvin’s city experienced considerable political and religious repercussions from the Savoyard attack. In contrast to that assault, events in Guebwiller did not give rise to contemporary eyewitness accounts, iconographic descriptions, or records. The attack is best known through the Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller.[15] This account was written in German during the first two decades of the eighteenth century by Séraphin Dietler, the prior of the Dominican abbey in Guebwiller, based on older archives and chronicles.[16]

Fig. 9 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the altar dedicated to Saint Valentine. Built following the Great War, it shows the escalade of Guebwiller by the Armagnacs during the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445. Detail: the assailants put to flight by Brigitte Schick and the apparition of the Virgin © Photos: C. Borel.

He describes how, around three o’clock in the morning on a cold February night, the Armagnacs erected ladders against the curtain wall, near the town’s baths. The soldiers began to climb up, knocking down stones and creating a clamour that awakened the guards, who were warming themselves. Roused by their cries, the citizens hastened to the town’s defence. Bridt (Brigitte) Schick, “a valiant woman who held the city’s welfare close to heart,” grabbed straw bundles that she lit on fire and hurled over the wall into the moat “with force and loud cries,” arousing fear among the enemy who fled in haste, “not without the special intervention of God.”(fig. 9 a-b). The population witnessed, “not without awe, the glorious mother of God and the holy saint and martyr Valentine, surrounded by a nimbus of dazzling light, hovering along the wall to show that they had taken the town and its inhabitants under their protection.” The apparition overwhelmed the fleeing soldiers with “prodigious terror as powerful as the fear they themselves might cause to an army amidst the order of battle.” On the following day, the prince-abbot of Murbach summoned the town authorities who took council and undertook to “forever celebrate and honour Saint Valentine’s Day[17] […] so that, through the intercession of Mary and the holy Bishop Valentine, the town and its inhabitants might be protected from all attacks and evils.”

“Curiously fashioned” ladders

The chronicle also recounts how, on the following morning, “when day began to dawn and the gates of the city were opened,” the inhabitants discovered “still hanging from the walls a number of curiously fashioned ladders composed partly of ropes and partly of wood” that could be folded up to be “hung within the parish church as an eternal memorial.”

Fig. 10. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the Chapel of Saint Valentine with ladders © Photo : C. Borel.

A few components of these ladders still survive in the chapel of Saint Valentine in the south aisle of the church of Saint Léger in Guebwiller[18] (fig. 10). These vestiges were evidently once more numerous. In 1844, it was noted that “it would be desirable for the administration to take certain protective measures. It seems that several of these curious monuments have already been removed, motivated by a love unrelated to the study of archaeology, nor by affection for souvenirs.” [19]

Fig. 11. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the preserved rope ladder © Photo: C. Borel.

The rope ladder that has come down to us is 40 cm wide and composed of cylindrical wooden rungs with bulbous extremities, supported in the centre and on the sides by securely knotted rope side rails (fig. 11). In the case of the “foldable” wooden ladder, four similar sections are still suspended under the vault (fig. 12 a-b). Slightly longer and narrower than those in Geneva (200 x 40 cm), they consist of siderails that all terminate in an identical interlocking device in the form of a mortice reinforced by metal plates and five equidistant rungs. Extending horizontally beyond the siderails, the rungs at the extremities are rectangular in section; some of them have two notches to facilitate assembly. The three other rungs are cylindrical.

Fig. 12 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the four remaining components of the wooden ladder “that could be folded” © Photos : C. Borel.

A few similarities

These attacks had very contrasting origins and backgrounds. In the case of Geneva, it was a significant strategic, political, and economic event, a strike long plotted by the Duke of Savoy, who wished to make the city the capital of his domains, re-establishing Catholicism there. The attack on Guebwiller was a simple case of attempted looting by idle soldiers. However, these two failed acts of aggression offer interesting parallels. The two scenarios are very similar. A winter night when the guard has been let down because of the cold. A dawn attack–which is standard procedure in this type of operation. Most strikingly, a hundred and fifty years apart, attackers who deployed modular ladders that they abandoned in their retreat. Recovered by the inhabitants the next day, these devices assumed the status of trophies, even ex-votos. Still more remarkable is the very exceptional preservation of some of these fragile assault devices that are made of perishable materials. Finally, these surprise attacks continue to be memorialised to this day.[20] In both cases—in a small Catholic town of the mid-fifteenth century and in the “Protestant Rome” of the early seventeenth century—the “miraculous” salvation of the beleaguered target is attributed to divine intervention.

Cite this article as: Corinne Borel, "Assault ladders in Geneva and Guebwiller: Rare accounts of two failed attempts to scale city walls with ladders," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 17/03/2022, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1579.

[1] See the collection of depictions of sieges in illuminated manuscripts assembled by Marina Suardini, “L’échelage dans la guerre de siège, aspects technique et matériel (XIVe – XVe siècles),” in Christiane Raynaud (dir.), Cahiers du Léopard d’or, 14, Armes et outils, Paris 2012,pp. 63-88.

[2] According to the Julian calendar then in use in Calvin’s city, which lagged the Gregorian calendar by ten days.

[3] The surviving components include three lower segments (inv. F 41, F 44 [https://mpgenevamah.zetcom.com/MpWeb-mpGenevaMAH/v#!m/Object/490244/form/ObjObjectFrm] and F 47), two upper segments (inv. F 46 and F 49 [https://mpgenevamah.zetcom.com/MpWeb-mpGenevaMAH/v#!m/Object/486951/form/ObjObjectFrm]), and twelve intermediate segments (inv. F 42, F 45, F 48, F 50, F 53 to F 60) among which seven originally included struts that were wedged against the wall to support the ladder. See José-A. Godoy, L’Escalade et ses souvenirs, Geneva 1980, pl. 1, pp. 24-27; idem, “Échelles de l’Escalade”, Geneva, n. s. L, 2002, Album, pp. 98-99.

[4] An account by the military engineer and tactician Antoine de Ville (1596-1656) was published in a treatise in 1629. It included a chapter devoted to escalade attacks that was in part based on the recent events in Geneva. It comes to the following conclusion: “Rarely are towns taken these days by means of escalade, due to the difficulty of executing these operations in Places that are even minimally fortified and defended.” (Antoine de Ville, Les Fortifications du chevalier Antoine de Ville Tholosain, avec L’Ataque & la Defence des Places, Lyon 1629, ed. Lyon 1640, Book II, Part I, chapter VIII, p. 240).

[5] Jacob Spon, Histoire de la Ville Et de l’Estat de Geneve. Depuis le premiers Siecles de la fondation de la Ville jusqu’à present: Tirée fidellement des Manuscrits, Lyon 1680, vol. II, p. 163.

[6] [Melchior Goldast], Histoire de la supervenue inopinée des Savoyards en la ville de Genève […], [Geneva] 1603, ed. Frédéric Gardy, Geneva 1903, p. 83.

[7] Journal d’Esaïe Colladon ∙ Mémoires sur Genève 1600-1605, Geneva 1883, p. 50.

[8] Three months later, on 26 April 1603, the Genevans made their own attempt at the same type of attack against the Savoyard fortress of Étrembières (ibid., p. 79).

[9] According to Maximilien Misson, who visited the city in 1688 (François Maximilien Misson, Nouveau Voyage d’Italie […], III, The Hague 1691, 3rd ed. 1698, letter XXXVII, p. 74.

[10] Goldast, op. cit., p. 71. See also Colladon, op. cit., p. 44, and Pierre Matthieu, Histoire de France, & des choses memorables advenues aux Provinces estrangeres […], Paris 1605, ed. Geneva 1620, vol. II, book V, 7th narration, p. 446.

[11] Vray discours de la miraculeuse delivrance envoyee de Dieu à la ville de Geneve, le 12. jour de Decembre, 1602, [Geneva] 1603, pp. 12-13.

[12] Antoine Gardner, “L’assaut manqué des Armagnacs contre Guebwiller dans la nuit de la St-Valentin 1445,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller 1957-60, Mulhouse 1961, p. 34.

[13] Antoine Gardner, “Les fortifications du Vieux Guebwiller,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller, 1961-1964, Mulhouse 1965, p. 42.

[14] Alexandre Tuetey, Les Écorcheurs sous Charles VII […], Montbéliard 1874, vol. I, p. 284, note 2.

[15] Conserved in the Library of the City of Colmar (Ms 725-1), the original  manuscript was published by Xavier Mossmann (Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller, publiée avec des pièces justificatives […], Guebwiller 1844) and by Johannes von Schlumberger (Die Gebweiler Chronik des Dominikaners Fr. Seraphin Dietler […], Guewiller 1898). For the French translation, see Philippe Legin (dir.), Frère Séraphin Dietler · Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller 1124-1723, Guebwiller 1994, pp. 91-322 (account of the escalade of Guebwiller, pp. 129-130).

[16] Specifically, for the event concerned, the chronicle written in the first half of the sixteenth century by Hans Stoltz (1475? – after 1545), municipal court clerk of Guebwiller (Ursprung und Anfang der Stadt Gebweyler, Library of the City of Colmar, Ms 539).

[17] See Xavier Mossmann, op. cit., pp. 423-424, supporting document XIV.

[18] Inventaire général des monuments et des richesses artistiques de la France, Haut-Rhin · Canton Guebwiller, Paris 1972, v. 1, p. 56, and v. 2, p. 112, fig. 260. The author thanks Dr Stefan Maeder for calling his attention to these ladders.

[19] Mossmann, op. cit., p. 64, note 1.

[20] In Guebwiller, the victory is celebrated annually on Saint Valentine’s Day with a mass of thanksgiving. The Fête de l’Escalade is a high point of the Genevan calendar, featuring an imposing historic procession and numerous cultural and athletic observances.


Published by

Corinne Borel

Art historian. In charge of the collection of armor and ancient weapons at the Museum of Art and History, Geneva.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.